By Michelle Froese, Senior Editor
Windpower Engineering & Development
Wind technicians face hazards every time they climb atop a wind turbine. A tech must confront heights, high voltage, overhead and rotating equipment, and exposure to unforgiving weather. Also, if help is ever warranted because of injury, it is typically hours away from most remote wind farms.
However, the job of a wind technician can be a safe and successful one, according to Auston Van Slyke, a Program Director at Colorado’s Ecotech Institute, the first and only college in the U.S. focused entirely on careers in the fields of renewable energy. Van Slyke was once a traveling wind technician himself, and currently teaches a 60-hour wind-turbine safety course at Ecotech.
He says proper gear and training are the keys to a safe career as a wind tech. This may seem simple enough, but with so many fall protection and personal protection equipment (PPE) choices on the market, making the right one is sometimes daunting.
“What wind technicians should suit up in at a jobsite is now a complicated and argued topic,” he shares. “From steel-toed boots to fire-retardant clothing, there are a lot of choices in PPE. And not everyone in the industry can agree on what is required of a tech because the job is different every day and at every wind site.”
Van Slyke points out that National Fire-Protection Association’s NFPA 70E sets the basic requirements for working around electricity. These standards have changed recently, so it is essential that wind techs keep up with current regulations. According to NFPA’s website, 70E was first developed at OSHA’s (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) request, and it “helps companies and employees avoid workplace injuries and fatalities due to shock, electrocution, arc flash, and arc blast.”
Safety gear that supports the regulation can include rubber electrician gloves, face shields, earplugs, and fire-retardant clothing. “There may be choice in some attire, but all wind techs should know NFPA 70E to ensure their safety when working near electricity. There are some electrical cabinets in a wind turbine that require workers to suit up in what looks like a bomb suit,” he says. “But better safe than sorry.”
The same can be said for turning on or off electrical equipment. “There are really five safety topics every wind tech should know: PPE, working at heights, tools, drop prevention, and LOTO,” says Van Slyke.
LOTO, or Lock Out Tag Out, is used in industry to ensure hazardous equipment is properly shut off and kept off until after maintenance work is complete. LOTO is not unique to wind sites, but it is a procedure wind techs do daily at a job site. “A lot of companies have developed their own guidelines for following the correct procedures, but I break LOTO down into seven steps,” says Van Slyke.
- Identify the energy source, communicate intent, and make sure the equipment is safe to de-energize.
- Turn off the energy, and lock and tag them. Note that some components lock in the off position, while others might require install of a cover or bracket.
- Verify zero energy state with hot-cold-hot and 6-point check. A hot-cold-hot check is the act of measuring for voltage to make sure the onsite meter is working, and then measuring equipment that was just turned off to ensure zero voltage is present. A 6-point check is important when working with three phases of power: first measure from the ground to each phase of power, and then from each phase to the other.
- Protect against unexpected energizing, and stay out from harm’s way as much as possible in case equipment becomes re-energized.
- Perform work carefully. Keep safety barriers in place and use appropriate tools and PPE at all times.
- Make sure equipment is safe to re-energize, and communicate your intent at the jobsite.
- Turn on energy slowly. Turn on the system starting with the safest circuit first.
“These steps apply to turning off electricity running to or from equipment before an inspection. But it also applies to locking the rotor when entering a turbine hub,” says Van Slyke. “It is one of the most important safety tasks at a wind site.”
Of course, another important and high-risk task of a wind tech is working at heights. “A wind technician has a relatively safe job — providing they follow all the rules and use proper gear.” Van Slyke says that when it comes to going up and down turbine towers, he trains technicians for three features: climbing, positioning, and rescuing.
“Safe climbing involves two important steps. The first, the 100% rule, means a climber must be tied off to an anchor point 100% of the time, no exceptions,” he says. This entails connecting to a new anchor point before disconnecting from the last one prior to moving forward in a climb.
The second step is three points of contact. It refers to the safest way to climb: two feet and one hand or two hands and one foot. “A wind tech must always keep three points of contact on the ladder to avoid the risk of slipping or falling off the rung,” says Van Slyke. “And no matter how important the job is at the top or back down at the base, it is more important to move slowly and carefully when ascending or descending a tower. You don’t have to fall from very high to get hurt badly.”
Positioning is particularly important if work on equipment from a ladder is part of a job up-tower, he says. “This requires an adjustable lanyard that can securely hold a climber’s weight, while providing some leverage so that he or she can safely lean out and away from the tower to work. A cable slide is not recommended for this purpose.”
Most wind-farm owners and operators have their own preferred fall-protection equipment, so it is important to train on and practice with the one in use at each job site. “This is especially true for rescue training,” says Van Slyke. “It’s necessary for all techs to familiarize themselves with how to use the lanyards, ladders, and fall-protection equipment at each and every jobsite. Train with each different product type and brand, and then practice, practice, practice.” Someone’s life may depend on it one day.
Safe tool use is another topic Van Sluke covers during his training program. “Much like PPE, there is an overwhelming number of tools to choose from as a wind tech —just ask your local Fluke or Snap-On Tools’ sales rep,” he says. But choosing the right one for the job takes skill. Case in point: Using the wrong type of electric meter is the leading cause of electrical injury, says Van Slyke.
“And, perhaps not surprisingly, hand injuries from misuse of tools are the number one cause of injury for wind techs. Hydraulic power-torque wrenches have pinched off many fingers because of improper use, and bolts can easily be over torqued and broken if the settings or procedures are incorrect,” he added.
That means improperly trained techs risk injury to themselves and damage to wind-turbine equipment. “Every wind tech needs to have training on their tools and for each new tool they use at a wind site to protect the entire jobsite,” he says.
Another hazard when working at heights is the risk of dropped tools or objects. “It’s quite simple,” says Van Slyke. “If you are working at heights, don’t drop anything. Just don’t. There are slings, strings, bungees, magnets, and swivels that can help ensure nothing will fall. Never use a tool at heights that is not safely tied off to something. There are no excuses here.”
Nevertheless, all site personnel should protect themselves as much as possible. “If you are not up-tower but the one on ground support, then make sure to wear the appropriate hard hat.” Van Slyke says that the hard-shell bump cap that wind techs typically use is not enough to protect from falling objects. “Rigging the tools and equipment to cranes, hoists, and winches is a daily task and should not be taken lightly. Using the appropriate connectors and slings are imperative for personal safety, and safety of all those onsite.”
The one lesson he stresses repeatedly when teaching new technicians: avoid shortcuts. “Don’t get lazy with safety and PPE equipment,” says Van Slyke. “I can’t stress this enough. Every tech should know what gear to use and how to use it correctly. Training is essential for the safest industry possible.